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March 3, 2002 Article

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History of the Pro Tennis Wars, Chapter 3:
Tilden’s Year of Triumph: 1931

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

(Note to readers: Earlier segments of the author’s history of the pro tennis wars told of the first pro tour in 1926 and the subsequent eminence of European Karel Kozeluh and American Vincent Richards.)


That Tilden was the greatest player of his time is unarguable. After topping the world’s singles rankings six times in seven years 1920-1926, Big Bill remained among the elite of amateur tennis another four years, winning his seventh U.S. National and, in 1930 at age 37, his third Wimbledon championship.

That Tilden would one day turn professional was not surprising. Promoter C.C. Pyle in 1926 told Bill he was a fool to stay amateur, and Tilden years later agreed, writing that he had "wasted five valuable years of my career..., influenced by that old amateur bunk." By late 1930 his differences with amateur tennis officialdom had become chronic. Talks with former theatrical producer Bert Cortelyou led to a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer to make three tennis instructional films for pay, a move that violated tennis’s amateur rules. Tilden promptly notified tennis officialdom that he was retiring from the amateur game.

Almost immediately, on December 31, 1930, Tilden signed to play a series of matches against Europe’s leading pro, Karel Kozeluh. Announced soon afterwards was the date for the opener at Madison Square Garden, Wednesday, February 18, 1931, Jack Curley promoting. Officials of U.S. Lawn Tennis Association spoke public good wishes.

A valuable addition to the pro game in mid-January was amateur star Frank Hunter, 36, who had been Tilden’s doubles partner in recent years and his opponent in the U.S. singles final of 1929. Best known for his powerful forehand, Hunter had been ill during much of 1930, but his familiar name would add to the coming tour’s prestige and box office appeal. Hunter said publicly that he turned pro because of the money. Tilden later wrote that Hunter did so out of loyalty.

Tilden, Hunter, and J. Emmett Pare went to Florida in late January to prepare. Pare was a young midwesterner, former Georgetown University captain, and recent national clay-court champion just turned pro. On February 2 Tilden and Hunter played four sets at Punta Gorda, Tilden winning three. Meanwhile in January Kozeluh won his fifth straight Bristol Cup tournament on the Riviera, defeating Irish pro Albert Burke in the final. Kozeluh docked in New York on February 14, and practiced with Vincent Richards and others the next three days. Early Wednesday the principals went to the Garden to watch the court installation and try out the surface. Merrihew reported that Kozeluh was "hitting with great speed off both wings" and that Hunter and Pare also looked ready.

The New York writers speculated on the likely outcome, emphasizing the contrast between Kozeluh’s defensive style and Tilden’s more-forcing play. Writer J. P. Allan of the Sun noted that Kozeluh was not very happy on indoor courts. Westbrook Pegler of the Post interviewed Tilden, who did "more helling and damning than I expected." During the interview Pegler could hear a loud conversation in the next room between Jack Curley and Kozeluh’s lawyer. Curley, long-time impresario of pro wrestling, emerged from the room shaking his head and announcing that "Tennis is just wrestling in white pants." For years people wondered how Tilden would fare among the pros. Year 1931 would bring ringing answers from three sources: (1) head-to-head series pitting Bill against Kozeluh and Vincent Richards, (2) the annual U.S. Pro championships at Forest Hills, and (3) a first pro tour in Europe.

MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, FEBRUARY 18

The setting seemed right for Tilden’s pro debut and his long-awaited meeting with Kozeluh. The linesmen were in evening jackets, the ballboys in flannels and green shirts. The green canvas looked splendid under the lights, its broad white lines easily visible from all parts of the big arena. The crowd, some in evening clothes, eventually reached about 14,000, almost filling the place. The first set of the preliminary match between Frank Hunter and Emmett Pare went to Hunter, 6-4, and the second set reached 5-all when play ended to make way for the main event.

The two protagonists came out for the introductions and the Czech and American national anthems. Lanky and broad-shouldered, Tilden stood at the net for photographers beside the wiry and erect Kozeluh, whose head reached the eyebrows of the slouching American. Tilden took the microphone to introduce his past comrade "Little Bill" Johnston, who sat courtside with writer Grantland Rice. Wallis Merrihew climbed into the umpire’s chair.

The crowd’s noisy enthusiasm gave way to a quiet expectancy, wrote Fred Hawthorne of the Herald-Tribune. Kozeluh served first and got into early trouble but escaped thanks to Tilden errors. Early in game two, Tilden served one of his famous "cannonballs," which he delivered with relatively low toss and almost no spin. It was the first of Tilden’s ten aces for the evening. Tilden won his serving game easily, then broke Kozeluh’s amid lots of noise from the crowd, which strongly favored the American.

Tilden’s supremacy soon became obvious, even as Big Bill seemed to be playing well within his ability. Playing mostly from the baseline, Tilden delivered a steady diet of forehands and backhands to the corners, often with heavy overspin or backspin. Kozeluh remained in deep court and displayed no weapon that could hurt his more powerful opponent. Observers noted that Kozeluh was playing far below his best. The veteran baseliner made many errors and seldom produced the shot-making precision that often neutralized strong players. Perhaps, offered Allison Danzig of the Times, Kozeluh had not yet recovered from his recent ocean voyage.

Kozeluh tried angled shots, which only allowed Tilden to reply with yet sharper angles. Kozeluh tried bringing Tilden to net, but the Wimbledon champion’s volleying and overhead work proved superb. The Czech pro tried standing 10-15 feet behind the baseline to receive serve. Kozeluh raised his play somewhat in set three, but Tilden had more than enough in reserve. It ended in just 65 minutes, score 64 62 64.

Over and above his 10-1 advantage in aces served, Tilden struck 25 placements to Kozeluh’s 9. (The two were about even in total errors.) Afterwards, Hunter-Tilden defeated Kozeluh-Pare in two sets of doubles. In post-match interviews, Tilden faced questions that he would meet often in the months to come. He thought that he could play another five years at top-class level. He said that Henri Cochet was now the world’s best amateur and would probably defeat Kozeluh albeit narrowly. He wished that tennis clubs in the U.S. would hold pro tournaments.

If the Tilden-Kozeluh match lacked competitive fire, the audience hadn’t seem to mind. Danzig and other reporters agreed that that the crowd had been "highly enthusiastic," indeed at times "uproarious." Hawthorne wrote, "If there was any doubt as to the future of professional tennis in this country, the crowd in the Garden last night removed it."

TILDEN-KOZELUH ON TOUR

The opening was the first of nine matches proclaimed to determine the world’s pro champion. It thus remained for Tilden to show that his victory in the Garden was no aberration.

Events resumed the next evening, February 19, in Carlin’s Arena in Baltimore before a crowd of about 3,500. The general play and the outcome were almost the same. Tilden prevailed 62 64 61. The American’s strong ground game was again too forceful for Kozeluh. Our main observer, from the local Evening Sun, wrote that "Sir William" removed all doubts. Then in the Boston Garden on the third consecutive night, February 20, Kozeluh won a set but Tilden easily replied, indeed not using the cannonball until very late in the match and winning 64 26 62 75. The crowd of 8,000, said to be the largest to witness tennis in New England, was spirited. Most stayed until the end of the doubles, which was played in a lighter manner and was "unconvincing" to the reporter from the Globe but was, he deemed, entertaining to the crowd.

After just one day off, the tour reconvened on four consecutive dates, February 22-25, in Cincinnati, Youngstown, Columbus, and Chicago. Tilden won comfortably on each occasion, and his triumph in the nine-match series, which became assured with his fifth win, in Youngstown, was scarcely noticed. Kozeluh tried hard and, as underdog, began to win some favor from the galleries. Most local writers gave high marks to Tilden and, indeed, to the general idea of pro tennis. At Columbus, Tilden started poorly and surrendered the first set without making much effort, but recovered. The next night before an approving crowd of 9,000 in Chicago, Kozeluh managed to win the second set but lost the third and then retired because of illness.

But the Czech veteran was starting to do better. Before 6,000 in Olympia Auditorium in Detroit Tilden served well but Kozeluh’s backhand kept matters close, wrote the Free Press reporter. Kozeluh won the first set but was already "visibly tired," and Tilden took command thereafter. Then in Omaha on March 2, Kozeluh won the first two sets and took a 4-1 lead in set three. It was grueling tennis, reported Al Wolf of the World Herald, with both men drenched in sweat and the crowd noisy on behalf of Tilden. Kozeluh was on the run constantly and agonized loudly whenever he missed. Tilden finally prevailed, 10-8 in the fifth set.

The nine-match series was now over but the tour went on, moving now to California. The venture had been a financial success so far, and Kozeluh’s showing in Omaha suggested that it might yet become a sporting success as well.

The owner of the tour was a privately held stock corporation, Tilden Tennis Tours, Inc. Tilden himself was president, Bert Cortelyou vice president, Frank Hunter treasurer. Players had individual contracts with the corporation. Jack Curley was booking supervisor of the tour and would himself be promoter of some engagements. Tilden later wrote favorably of his association with Curley, but pointed out that Curley was always Tilden’s employee, not the reverse. Bill O’Brien, later promoter, traveled as trainer.

Neither players nor watchers complained about the court surface. A cork mat, made by Armstrong Cork Co., was hauled from place to place and, at most sites, was laid atop the existing floor. The canvas surface was then stretched over the mat and held tight by cables. The net posts were also supported by cables. Dr. Lock Wei, former Chinese Davis Cup captain, was the chair umpire and occasional substitute player. Several ballboys also traveled with the tour. Line umpires were typically provided by the regional tennis associations. Starting a day or two ahead, the local newspapers told about the coming event and the players. On arriving at a new city, the players gave interviews and attended social functions. Tilden typically spent an hour or so in mid-afternoon talking with groups of young players at a school or club.

The tour now slowed down, remaining for a month in California. Kozeluh could now rebuild his game, while Tilden worked on his movie-making at MGM. Hunter went back to his publishing business outside New York, replaced in the weekend engagements by newly turned pro Herbert L. "Bobby" Seller, 22, from San Francisco. At the Los Angeles opener at the Olympic Auditorium on Saturday, March 7, Kozeluh showed that he was indeed getting closer by again forcing a "grueling" five-setter.

So far, all matches had been played indoors. On the afternoon of Saturday, March 14, the two met on outdoor cement courts at Los Angeles Tennis Club. Having had a week to practice and rest, and believing that the outdoor conditions would favor him, Kozeluh told a reporter from L.A. Times that this time he would win. The prediction was plausible, as the more spacious playing area outdoors should help Kozeluh’s deep-court, retrieving style, while wind and sun might diminish Tilden’s serving and overhead strengths.

Kozeluh backed up his words, defeating Big Bill for the first time, 46 62 36 64 61. Proving that it was no accident, Kozeluh won again the next afternoon at the same location, in straight sets 64 64 62. Our L.A. Times reporter wrote that Tilden served poorly and played well only in streaks. Kozeluh, however, seemed steadiness personified. "If he could only keep sending the ball back, Big Bill would eventually... [find] the net," he wrote.

Tilden turned things around the following weekend, defeating Kozuleh in close matches outdoors at Midwick and Palomar Tennis Clubs. A week later, indoors in San Francisco, Tilden defeated Kozeluh in four sets before 3,500. The two played again the next day before packed stands outdoors at Berkeley Tennis Club. Tilden won the first set but Kozeluh won the next three. Both players came to net more often than usual, and some spirited volleying duels ensued. Kozeluh, it seemed, was now returning the cannonball better than before, and his lobs hurt Tilden at net repeatedly. Both in San Francisco and Berkeley, local pro Howard Kinsey, veteran of the 1926 tour, played in the doubles.

After another week for Tilden at MGM, the principals played three more times outdoors in southern California. Kozeluh won at L.A. Tennis Club and at Huntingdon Hotel, Pasadena, and Tilden won at Long Beach. The California stay ended on April 6 when Tilden won indoors in San Francisco. Late in the match Kozeluh tried to emulate Tilden’s heavy baseline hitting, but the eternal retriever and counterpuncher could not summon enough sustained power to bother Big Bill. During their month in California, Tilden won all three matches played indoors, while Kozeluh won five of the eight on outdoor cement.

As the troupe returned eastward, Tilden resumed his regular victories indoors though the scores were now closer than before. Each evening an hour or so of singles between two of the secondary players preceded the main attraction, and doubles followed well into the night. Most audiences and writers were pleased by the performances. Reporters saw Tilden as the acknowledged master, still close to his best, and Kozeluh as the war horse who tried for everything.

In their 33 matches through May 5 in Montreal, Tilden won 27 times, Kozeluh 6. Kozeluh won five times on California cement, and once indoors--at New Haven on April 30 when, a local writer noted, Tilden seemed tired and troubled by a knee injury.

TILDEN VS. RICHARDS

Master volleying artist Vincent Richards, having retired from competition after defeating Kozeluh for the 1930 U.S. Pro championship, stayed busy at his tennis school in New York. But the financial and sporting prospects upon Tilden’s conversion were irresistible, and Richards in January 1931 decided to end his retirement. Curley in March announced a five-match series between Tilden and Richards, again for the world’s professional championship. The personal relations between Tilden and Richards, who were both strong-minded competitors, had sometimes been harsh in the past, and Richards now, probably with box office in mind, began publicly making boastful statements.

Analysts reviewed the several battles prior to 1927 between the two men. Tilden had won more often, but many thought that Richards’s net-attacking skills and his ten-year advantage in youth might now prevail. Others noted that Richards had been away from competition for months, while Tilden’s game was sharp from the tour with Kozuleh. The betting was heavy, one reporter noted, many wagerers backing Richards at even money.

A Garden opener was now a tradition in pro tennis, and the May 9 affair before 14,000 bore almost the same splendor seen just three months before. Allison Danzig wrote that the first set was "magnificently played," that Richards’s volleys were "almost matchless," and that Tilden answered either by ripping away or with some remarkable lobbing. Helped by two net-cord winners in the final game, Richards won the first set 75.

But it was a moment soon forgotten. Vinnie’s serve was proving too weak to follow to net, as Tilden’s returns increasingly came at the Richards feet. Getting to net at other times was also becoming hopeless in the face of Tilden’s artillery. Big Bill ripped his forehands and backhands to the corners with more than their usual pace and fury, forcing Vinnie into unwanted defensive play. More than customarily, Tilden was moving forward behind his rocketry, and upon reaching forecourt he showed degrees of touch and pace in his volleying that surprised long-time Tilden-watchers. At the end Tilden seemed as fresh as at the beginning, score 57 60 61 63. Richards was exhausted. Tilden led in aces 12-4, and in other placements 48-12. Wrote Allan of the Post, "Big Bill never was greater."

Tilden won again in Boston Garden three nights later, May 12, before more than 7,000. But this time Vinnie captured two of the five sets, steadily coming to net where, according to the Globe reporter, he "anticipated beautifully amid Tilden’s hail." The old enmities seemed at work amid a "grim and remorseless" struggle. At the end Richards failed in "a last, great volleying attack." The score was 63 36 61 16 63, Tilden. Bill also led in aces 9-2 and in other placements 33-25.

Things resumed at the Philadelphia Arena on May 14 before 5,000. Merrifield in American Lawn Tennis doubted that Vinnie had ever played better. A surprisingly confident Richards tempered his net approaching somewhat, and many longish rallies ensued. The gallery responded enthusiastically and often. Richards gradually stepped up his net-attacking, winning the second set to equalize matters. Perry Lewis of the Inquirer wrote that the power of Tilden’s groundstrokes almost tore the racquet from Vinnie’s hand. For a while in set three Richards seemed on top, as Merrihew saw it, especially when he got his first serve in. But the power and accuracy of Tilden’s strokes finally prevailed, 64 57 75 62.

The story was the same on Sunday May 17 before 5,000 in Chicago. Richards won two of the first three sets but appeared to tire and, though Vinnie kept up a good fight, Tilden had his way thereafter. Richards used his net game to the fullest in set five, nailing some fine overheads, but Tilden hammered two aces to end the tenth game and close out the match.

Tilden now led in the series, four matches to none, and the notion of a climactic fifth match back in New York was dropped.

OUTDOORS

A weekend event called the First Annual Longwood Bowl took place on the grass at Longwood outside Boston May 26-28. For the three-day singles round-robin, Vincent Richards joined tour veterans Tilden, Kozeluh, and Hunter. Tilden defeated all three of the others in turn, Hunter lost all three of his matches, and–answering the main uncertainty–Kozeluh defeated Richards 46 62 62 75. The New England spring weather was chill and rainy, holding the afternoon crowds to about 1,000. In doubles, the players switched partners each evening under outdoor lights.

Well into summer Tilden Tennis Tours, Inc., matched Tilden and Kozeluh at locations in the eastern United States. The two met again on grass at Rye, New York, on June 7. Kozeluh led by three games in both sets before losing 63 75. The play was mostly from backcourt, marked by Tilden’s severe and varied slicing which made for difficult, skidding bounces, observed Allison Danzig. Tilden’s American twist serve, or kicker, regularly pulled Kozeluh wide on his backhand side.

Two other pro tournaments stayed alive. The Southern Pro, held at Palm Beach Tennis Club in March, went to Paul Heston. The Pro Championships of Great Britain were held in July at Wimbledon. Don Maskell won the event for the fourth time in five years. Neither Vincent Richards, who won the Southern in 1930, nor any of the touring pros competed in either event.

THE U.S. PRO CHAMPIONSHIPS

The U.S. Pro was already a storied tournament, having provided the great Kozeluh-Richards finals the last three years. The 1931 rendition would be the fifth, to begin Monday, July 9, on the grass at Forest Hills. All the touring pros then in America entered, along with the usual cast of teaching pros. Howard Kinsey and Harvey Snodgrass came from California, and Albert Burke, runner-up to Kozeluh in January at Beaulieu, came from Europe. It would be the world’s foremost pro tournament of the year.

Two days of rain delayed the start of play until Wednesday. Some players played twice on that date, while marginal weather held down the number of paying customers. Most early-round matches ended quickly, as the seeded stars easily defeated the teachers of the game, many of whom were old for competitive tennis. All eight seeded players again advanced on Thursday, in each case in three straight sets except for Bobby Seller, who required four sets against club pro Henry Geidel of Long Island.

The quarters on Friday produced a surprise when chop-stroke artist Kinsey defeated the stylish Burke, who was playing his first tournament on grass, in four long sets. Meanwhile Hunter won his opening set against Kozeluh behind power forehands which he often followed to net. Hunter also led early in set two, but Kozeluh came to life, thereafter dominating. Tilden and Richards won their singles in straight sets over Pare and Seller, respectively.

In one semi Richards, favored by the grass surface, comfortably defeated Kozeluh. In his New York Times column, Tilden told how Richards attacked net at every opportunity, while Kozeluh seemed unable to muster the pace or accuracy to answer. Matters ended in straight sets. Meanwhile in the other semi, Tilden easily defeated Kinsey. Bill wrote that he had seldom hit with "more accuracy and severity combined" and noted that Kinsey may have been affected by his long struggle against Burke the day before.

Allison Danzig called the Tilden-Richards final before 4,000 on Sunday, July 12, "one of the transcendent exhibitions of American tennis history." At first, Richards showed superior consistency from back court, moving ahead 4-2 in games. But Tilden found his timing, stopped his errors, and "turned on as devastating and demoralizing a barrage of drives as a Forest Hills gallery ever witnessed." It was a performance that, to Danzig, approached absolute perfection. Tilden hit the angles, then followed with finishing rockets to the opposite corners, power-stroking from either side, often on the run. Richards volleyed well, Danzig conceded, but increasingly found himself unable to come forward. The gallery seemed awestruck by the perfection of Tilden’s mastery, 75 62 61. Afterwards, Tilden confirmed that all his shots were working, indeed that he had never played better tennis.

The doubles final was a five-setter pitting Kinsey-Richards against Hunter-Tilden. The winners were the defending champions, Kinsey-Richards, 79 75 36 64 63. Babe Norton reported that late in the match Hunter’s overhead softened. Kinsey-Richards began lobbing over Hunter, who began hanging back from the net thus placing his pair on the defensive.

TILDEN OFF COURT AND ON

The character and personal ways of Bill Tilden are portrayed in the fascinating biography by Frank Deford. Tilden was often autocratic, unwilling to deal with others except on his own terms, lordly and affected in manner. One player able to deal with Tilden as an equal was Frank Hunter, who was the antithesis of Bill in his appetites but was able to chide away Bill’s pomposity without spoiling their relationship. Tilden loved playing the game of bridge, ate mostly steaks, liked cigarettes and coffee, and had strong interest in music and the theater. Deford writes that Tilden’s liking for young boys remained below the level of deviant activity until late in his life. Tilden’s thinking and writing abilities were excellent, and he was wholly without dishonesty in play. Bill Tilden was widely admired by the public and was long an imposing voice within, though often critical of, the tennis establishment.

In his amateur days, Tilden liked to control not only the score but also the psychological battle. Often he could win using any strategy he chose, and he might play the same opponent in very different ways on different occasions. He seemed at his best in long rallies featuring accuracy and variety in spin and pace, using his superior power sparingly.

But in his first year as a pro, something changed. One who saw it was Babe Norton, who had nearly defeated Tilden in the 1921 Wimbledon final and had since watched Big Bill regularly. Now, Bill was playing with tremendous and sustained power and depth. He would sometimes fall behind in his pro matches but he nevertheless persisted in his big hitting from the baseline, confident that his body and senses would eventually adjust to the court, the conditions, and the opponent. Once his heavy game came under control, Tilden became unbeatable. His opponents, even the attacker Richards, could then play only defensively.

Tilden’s stamina was legendary. Also a fixture was Tilden’s court mobility, which was excellent albeit his long strides. Better than anyone, he could reach the ball in time to set up over it and deliver the punishing forcing shot. His eastern forehand and backhand techniques set the standard for generations. His serve was simply the best. One experimenter, by timing the ball from impact until it hit the ground at the opposite service line, calculated Tilden’s serve at 151.2 mph. This value seems high, but the same instrumentation measured the serve of John Doeg, who served 28 aces in defeating Tilden at Forest Hills in 1930, at a plausible 127.6 mph.

To his eternal credit, Tilden established that pro tennis must be kept honest. Writers often pointed out how Tilden must surely, as a businessman, realize that it would be good for ticket sales if Big Bill lost more often. Tilden endlessly denounced the thought, insisting that pro tennis would fail if players gave less than their best. He was especially wary of Jack Curley’s past tie to pro wrestling, and later wrote that he warned Curley not to ask him to make things closer. Tilden often asserted that he felt a greater obligation to fandom as a pro than as an amateur.

Match-watchers sometimes detected that Tilden eased up or other times made little effort to come from behind. This was accepted strategy at the time, when the ability to tire an opponent while sacrificing a set was studied and practiced. All major matches were best-of-five, tiebreakers were unknown, and rest was not allowed during changeovers. As a pro older than his opponents, Tilden undoubtedly yielded sets without much fight on behalf of the larger goal of winning the match.

LATE SUMMER

The Tilden tour continued to perform in the U.S. East and Midwest until October. Kozeluh defeated Tilden more often than before, the outdoor clay surfaces producing (in Tilden’s words) "many bitter meetings." Albert Burke, who was held in exaggerated high regard by Tilden, joined Pare and Seller as the secondary players and became Tilden’s singles opponent after Kozeluh returned to Europe in late August. Texan Bruce Barnes, age 20, signed with the tour in early September.

Tilden, who kept close records, summarized the outcomes of his 67 matches in North America with Kozeluh, which ended August 16: Overall: Tilden 50, Kozeluh 17 Indoors: Tilden 26, Kozeluh 1 Grass: Tilden 2, Kozeluh 0 Outdoor hard courts: Kozeluh 5, Tilden 3 Clay: Tilden 19, Kozeluh 11

Tilden lost only one of his matches with Burke, while for the year Tilden counted ten match wins over Vincent Richards without loss. A finale came the weekend of October 3-4 on outdoor clay at Hamilton Tennis Club, New York. Tilden defeated Richards in five sets on Saturday and again in straight sets on Sunday. In between, Richards played an engagement at Tarrytown, winning a set of singles over amateur Frank Shields, 7-5, and with a local partner a set of doubles over Shields and Berkeley Bell.

The most successful secondary player of the 1931 North American tour was Albert Burke, though the data from the preliminary matches are incomplete. Pare and Hunter played roughly evenly against each another, while Pare dominated Seller during the early year. Starting in mid-summer, Seller began holding his own both in singles against Pare and in the doubles.

THE FIRST EUROPEAN TOUR

The troupe arrived in Paris on October 14. Tilden answered the familiar questions from reporters, and the players settled in for a week of practice. Tilden spoke at a luncheon for the press on October 20. Afterwards, writers attended an indoors workout, which included some singles between Kozeluh and French pro Martin Plaa. Plaa was a jovial competitor, a dark-haired Basque, who had helped the Musketeers train in recent years.

It was the first big-time pro tennis in Paris. Vigorously promoting the two-night engagement was Jeff Dixon, who owned the new Palais des Sports, site of the matches October 21-22. About 9,000 watchers attended each session at the Palais, which reached full capacity on the second night. The glitter about the familiar green canvas rivaled that seen at Madison Square Garden.

Kozeluh dominated Hunter in the first match, both men playing from back court. A writer from the International Herald-Tribune observed that Kozeluh was "quick-footed as a cat" and impregnable on defense, probably dooming Hunter’s baseline strategy from the outset. Next, Tilden’s heavy ground strokes wholly outclassed Martin Plaa’s determined but seldom brilliant play. When Tilden served at full power, points became almost automatic.

To start the second night in Paris, Albert Burke defeated Hunter in two straight sets, steadiness overcoming the American’s powerful but erratic forehand. In the main attraction, Kozeluh fought hard against Tilden, showing his "jack-rabbit" qualities and some amazing returns at full reach. But given the hall’s noticeably tight playing area, Tilden’s dominance on indoor canvas as usual prevailed, in three straight sets. Kozeluh could only keep the ball going and hope.

The Paris matches had been financially successful, but was there a future for pro tennis in France? Our observers, seeing the reserved response of the crowds, doubted it. "There were moments when the audience sighed for the pyrotechnics of a Borotra or Cochet," wrote the Herald-Tribune scribe. Tom Crane of Chicago Tribune New York News European edition agreed. Why is it, he wondered after the first night, that pro tennis is played only from the baseline? Not more than ten times during the evening, Crane wrote, did a player approach net boldly.

Indeed, the era of all-out net-rushing in pro tennis was yet to come. Even Vincent Richards, who did not make the trip to Europe, usually stayed in back court against weaker opponents. Most players came forward only to finish points already practically won. Coming to net behind serve was thought very fatiguing. Crane noted that even in the Paris doubles "the baseline complex still existed," but he was pleased the second night, when Tilden came forward enough against Kozeluh to "make things interesting."

The warriors moved on to Saturday and Sunday engagements on a fast wood surface at Brussels and on roughened, slow wood at Amsterdam. In Brussels, Kozeluh lost two straight sets to Tilden despite early leads in both sets. But the Czech star overturned matters on the slower surface in Amsterdam, defeating Tilden 97 61. Tilden never achieved good consistency in his backcourt heavy game.

At Hamburg on wood Tuesday and Wednesday nights, October 27-28, a new star emerged--a German 21-year-old who had recently claimed the German pro championship by defeating Plaa. Hans Nusslein, according to an observer writing for American Lawn Tennis, seemed at home on wood and at times showed great tennis in carrying Tilden to five sets, 36 63 62 26 86. Tilden was never at his best, the writer noted, and there were some bad line calls against the American, but nothing changed his conclusion that the German was "a great young player." Nusslein the second day cemented his credentials by defeating Hunter in four sets and carrying Burke to an extended set, 10-8, won by Burke.

The three days in Berlin starting October 30 became the zenith of the European tour. All seats were filled in the 3,500-capacity Tennishall. As in all tour appearances, the paying customers were there to watch Tilden, but in this case they were also interested in the success of the German newcomer. The meeting of the two came on the first evening, Friday, again on wood.

Once again, Nusslein and Tilden produced a five-setter. Nusslein hit very well at first, Tilden relying on his experience to fend off his opponent. But at the end it was Tilden who, despite unfavorable line calls, was dominating the nearly exhausted Nusslein on every point. Tilden, older by 17 years than his opponent, won 46 64 64 36 61.

The Saturday singles went routinely. On Sunday Nusslein defeated Hunter and Tilden defeated the hard-hitting left-hander, veteran Roman Najuch. But there were fireworks Saturday night in the doubles, when Tilden and Hunter, until then undefeated on the Europe tour, lost to Najuch-Nusslein, 60 63. Then on Sunday, the teacher-student pair from Berlin defeated Burke-Kozeluh, in two straight sets. Pleased with these outcomes, the Berliner Morgenpost on Tuesday reported that "The Tilden-troupe has left Berlin, but they will remember it."

In an unaccustomed role at Koln, Tilden won the preliminary match against Burke. At Tilden’s insistence the feature match pitted Nusslein and Kozeluh. The Czech veteran seemed nervous and erratic, while Nusslein, ordinarily a hard-hitting baseliner, moved to net often on short balls. Then as Kozeluh’s errors increased in the final set, Nusslein became content to win in extended rallies, 75 63 26 63.

Two outdoor dates in Italy were lost because of rain, and a Monte Carlo appearance was lost because of scheduling problems. One final engagement remained, a return to canvas in Paris on November 9. Advanced publicity boosted Nusslein and compared him to Cochet. Journalist Tom Crane, however, having watched Nusslein a year ago, doubted that Nusslein was suddenly in Tilden’s class.

The attendance of 3,500 at the Palais was down considerably from before. Kozeluh opened the evening, winning two of three sets from Plaa who, the Herald-Tribune reporter noted, remained ever smiling. In contrast, Kozeluh had now attained a reputation in Paris for surliness toward spectators and ballboys. This behavior had been rare in the U.S., where fans generally enjoyed the Czech star’s good-natured soccer-style foot or head treatment of errant tennis balls.

Tilden had Nusslein at his mercy from the outset of the main event. It was mostly a backcourt contest where, as Crane saw it, Nusslein was an "animated backdrop" for Tilden’s brilliance. Nusslein occasionally flashed a fine backhand and did some crisp serving, but almost never came to net. Crane concluded that Nusslein did not merit a place on the next American tour. Crane’s colleague, Herol Egan, disagreed, deeming that Nusslein would one day become pro champion. The win completed a near-sweep for Tilden in singles in Europe; Bill’s only loss had been to Kozeluh in Amsterdam.

The evening’s doubles were again interesting. Najuch-Nusslein again defeated Hunter-Tilden, 64 36 61, pounding away at Hunter. Crane repeated earlier thoughts that the American pair lacked a feeling for doubles.

RANKINGS AND OUTLOOK

Tilden’s triumphant year at age 38 makes his place atop our pro rankings for 1931 beyond question. Second is Kozeluh, who won at Beaulieu, battled Tilden almost to a stand-off in their many outdoor matches, and showed late-year wins over Richards. Vinnie, who defeated Kozeluh to reach the finals at Forest Hills, is third. We place Nusslein fourth for his late-year performance against the tour pros in Europe. The next four have credentials of nearly equal weight–Albert Burke, Kinsey, Hunter, and Pare, who we rank in that order.

In merging our list with Myers’s world amateur rankings, we place Tilden first, clearly ahead of the world’s top-ranked amateur, Cochet. Henri’s performance had declined from 1930, while Bill’s game was stronger than before. Tilden himself, who was never boastful, regularly said he was playing his best ever. One close evaluator in Paris–probably E.C. Potter–deemed that Cochet would now have no chance against Tilden.

Of the other pros, Kozuleh and Richards plainly merited placement amid the top amateurs. The margins dividing the amateurs were very close, and Kozeluh on clay and Richards on grass conceivably might have defeated all of them. We place the two veterans sixth and seventh, however, behind amateurs Cochet, Austin, Vines, and Perry, and ahead of Shields. From the point of view of the great matches that did not happen across the two groups, it was an especially sad time in the long history of separate pro and amateur tennis worlds.

A pro doubles ranking is elusive. By reputation Hunter-Tilden should claim the top honor, but Pare-Tilden (when Hunter was away) achieved a better tour record. Kinsey-Richards defeated Hunter-Tilden in the final at Forest Hills, and Najuch-Nusslein twice defeated them in Europe. We accord co-equal status to the four pairs here mentioned.

The year had been a fine one for pro tennis, both as business and sport. Tilden’s presence assured that engagements would be financially successful. But future prosperity required an equal opponent for Big Bill. Paris revealed that young Nusslein was probably not ready and, despite rumors, it would be another two years before Cochet would join the pros.

But needed even more urgently was a solid structure of recognized tournaments--permanent annual events, that would fortify the public’s interest and trust. Dick Cullum, writer for Minneapolis Journal, saw this after watching the excellent five-setter between Tilden and Kozeluh on April 16. All 5,000 fans who attended were glad they went, wrote Cullum. But, he continued, 4,000 of them were not planning to go again. The trouble was, he concluded, that although the event had been a superb exhibition of play, the winning and losing had been meaningless.

Meanwhile the world faced deepening economic depression. Pro tennis in the immediate future would do well to consolidate, far less to extend, the gains produced in 1931 by the vast impact of Bill Tilden.

--Ray Bowers

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Between The Lines Archives:
1995 - May 1998 | August 1998 - 2003 | 2004 - 2014


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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

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